Feasibility and outcomes of insulin therapy in elderly patients with diabetes mellitus

Christopher D. Saudek, Sherita Hill Golden

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

Abstract

The use of insulin in elderly patients raises special considerations. Most people who develop diabetes mellitus late in life have type 2 diabetes mellitus, in which there is some residual endogenous insulin secretion. This pancreatic insulin secretion, when present, stabilises their metabolic status. However, some elderly people lose virtually all their endogenous insulin secretory capacity over time, or may even have type 1 (autoimmune) diabetes mellitus with no endogenous insulin. Generally, older patients with diabetes mellitus can be managed for years, often decades, with nutritional therapy and oral agents. More options exist now than did previously. In addition to a variety of sulfonylureas, there is metformin, troglitazone, and/or α-glucosidase inhibitors, that are viable options to be used before turning to insulin. The goals of insulin therapy in the elderly must be considered. When hyperglycaemia causes symptoms (polyuria, polydypsia and bodyweight loss) blood glucose levels are generally > 200 mg/dl, and insulin is needed if maximal doses of oral agents have been used. Insulin is also indicated when hyperglycaemia puts patients at risk of hyperosmolar states, for example, when blood glucose is > 300 mg/dl during a normal day. Clinical judgement dictates whether to use insulin to control glycaemia in the attempt to avoid long term complications such as neuropathy, retinopathy or nephropathy. In people with relatively short life expectancy, major comorbities and no sign of diabetic complications, the risk may be small. On the other hand, in patients for whom neuropathy, in particular, is a major risk, controlling glycaemia (with insulin if necessary) does reduce that risk. Most patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus can be managed with relatively simple insulin regimens thanks to their endogenous insulin secretion. A single bedtime dose of neutral protamine Hagedorn (NPH) insulin, with or without continuation of daytime oral agents, may control fasting blood glucose. A pre-mix combination of NPH and Regular insulin such as 70/30 or 50/50 may be used pre-meal. More customised, 'intensive' insulin regimens are needed when the glycaemia is unstable. Hypoglycaemia is clearly the most significant risk of insulin therapy. If mild and easily treated, it is of no real concern. On the other hand, nocturnal hypoglycaemia, and, in particular, hypoglycaemia unawareness, are clear signs that the insulin regimen should be modified. In summary, insulin therapy may be necessary, and can be used effectively, in elderly patients. However, risk:benefit considerations must be taken into account when deciding which patients to treat with insulin and what insulin regimen to use.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)375-385
Number of pages11
JournalDrugs and Aging
Volume14
Issue number5
DOIs
StatePublished - May 18 1999

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geriatrics and Gerontology
  • Pharmacology (medical)

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